Sexual Violence in Conflict: The First Libyan Civil War
Updated: Mar 2
This case note is a part of our series of case notes that document the occurrence of sexual violence in violent conflict. The case note contains explicit mentions of different forms of sexual assault. Reader discretion is advised.
Background of the Conflict
When the Arab Spring began in 2011, Libya was one of the countries that witnessed massive protests that led to a civil war, military intervention, and the ousting and death of Muammar Gaddafi.
In February 2011, protests began in Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city, against Gaddafi’s 40-year rule. The protests were met with brutal crackdowns with the security sector opening fire on civilian protesters, and this catalyzed a larger uprising that culminated in the establishment of the National Transitional Council (NTC). This interim governing body opposed Gaddafi’s autocratic rule. Even as violence escalated, the regime responded with force, even issuing statements that hinted at a willingness to kill civilians to suppress the protests.
The UN Security Council adopted a resolution authorizing military intervention in Libya. Shortly after that, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant against Gaddafi and other actors in his regime on June 27, 2011. He was ousted from power after the NTC’s forces captured Tripoli. While his supporters kept up resistance against the NTC, Gaddafi declared his hometown, Sirte, the new capital of Libya on September 1, 2011. When Sirte was captured and the NATO airstrikes targeted Gaddafi’s convoy, he was eventually killed. Following the civil war, the proliferation of armed groups caused violence and instability in the country, and eventually led to a second civil war from 2014 onward.
Sexual violence during the conflict
The occurrence of sexual violence in the Libyan conflict was first brought to light when a law student burst into a hotel in Tripoli and told the foreign journalists staying there that she had been held and gang-raped by Gaddafi’s soldiers. She was dragged away from the hotel by security forces, and the government tried to dismiss the incident by calling her mentally ill. There were many stories on how coordinated campaigns of mass rape were underway, with some reports indicating the distribution and use of Viagra to enable soldiers to conduct mass rapes.
A psychologist called Seham Sergewa indicated that she sent out 50,000 questionnaires and received 60,000 responses – and identified 295 reports of rape. According to the UNHCR, there were instances in which the rape of a woman was seen as a matter of dishonour for her entire village or town. The UN documented accounts of rape by Gaddafi’s forces and also gathered testimonies from residents of Misrata who indicated that their primary reason for fleeing was to protect their family members from rape. The UN noted that the significant challenge lay in chronic underreporting of conflict-related sexual violence, which was largely a result of the fear of reprisals, stigma, and the socio-cultural attitudes of violence.
Basis of use of Sexual Violence
From the reports that have seen light of day, it seems clear that rape and sexual violence were used as a mechanism to intimidate protesters and to punish them for aligning against the government. In some instances, it was used to obtain information from rebel fighters. Sexual violence and rape culminated in stigma and social isolation, and whole families and communities considered the rape of a woman a violation of their honour. Sexual violence was also deployed to force compliance with and allegiance to the regime. In some instances, it was also used to retaliate against “foreign mercenaries.” Physicians for Human Rights conducted in-depth interviews with six Libyan civilians, including two obstetricians/gynecologists, who gave credible reports of military-sanctioned rape as well as of honour killings that occurred in response to these instances of rape and sexual violence.
Documented by Kirthi Jayakumar